It’s that time of the year again. SwimSwam will be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s teams (and then some) from the 2022 NCAA Championships. Follow along with the College Swimming Preview Channel. Want to read even more? Check out the latest edition of the SwimSwam magazine.
#1 Virginia Cavaliers
Key Additions: Maxine Parker (Transfer — Sprint Free), Sam Baron (Transfer — Fly/IM), Jaycee Yegher (Transfer — Breast), Carly Novelline (IL — Sprint Free/Fly/Back), Zoe Skirboll (PA — Sprint Free/Breast), Claire Tuggle (CA — Distance Free), Sophia Knapp (VA — Distance Free), Emma Weber (CO — Breast), Izzy Bradley (VA — Back), Aimee Canny (South Africa — Sprint Free), Aimee Crosbie (New Zealand — Sprint Free)
Fifth Years: Annie Wiese (Transfer — diving)
Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.
Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.
- 5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
- 4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
- 3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
- 2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
- 1 star (★) – an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
In 2021, the Virginia women won this first-ever NCAA championship title by over 100 points, but there was still room for improvement, as they only won one relay after being favored to sweep all five. Then, in 2022, the Cavaliers responded by displaying one of the greatest-single team performances in NCAA history.
Virginia swam lights-out in-season and won their third straight ACC championship, a meet where the team set four different relay NCAA/US Open/American records and gained a lot of momentum headed into NCAAs. Following conferences, people speculated on whether Virginia would continue to drop time at NCAAs after how fast they had been swimming earlier on in the season. But when March rolled around, they proved doubters wrong and had an even better showing than they did in 2021.
At NCAAs, all eyes were on Kate Douglass, who swept her individual events, broke three different American records, and became the first swimmer to win NCAA titles in three different stroke. She wasn’t the only superstar on the team though, as Alex Walsh also won all her individual events and became the fastest 200 IMer in history, while her sister Gretchen Walsh won the 100 free and took second in the 100 back and 50 free.
Douglass and the Walsh sisters were the top three individual scorers overall at NCAAs, and were key components of the Virginia relays that won four out of the five contested relay races. But the team shined from top to bottom, as beyond the the biggest stars, there were several swimmers such as Alexis Wenger, Reilly Tiltmann, Ella Nelson, Emma Weyant, and Lexi Cuomo who either scored double-digit points or were on NCAA-winning relays.
When all was said and done, Virginia won 2022 NCAAs by an even bigger margin than in 2021 and put on their most dominant showing ever.
SPRINT FREE: ★★★★★
There is no doubt that senior Kate Douglass and sophomore Gretchen Walsh are the best sprinting duo in the nation. In history, only three women have been under the 21-second barrier in the 50 free, and Douglass (20.84) and Walsh (20.95) are two of them. They are heavily favored to go 1-2 again at 2023 NCAAs, and both have a shot at taking down the NCAA/US/Open record that Douglass set last year.
In addition, Walsh is the defending national champion in the 100 free, and her best time of 46.05 makes her the fourth-fastest performer in history. She’ll be challenged for the title this season by a now-healthy Maggie MacNeil, but she’s for certain a lock for the top two. Douglass is the defending 100 free ACC champion and her season-best time of 46.62 would have actually finished second at NCAAs last year, but she likely won’t even swim the event at the latter meet because it falls on the same day as the 200 breast.
Senior Lexi Cuomo should also bring in some 50 free points. At NCAAs last year, she set a new best time of 21.80 to finish ninth in the prelims, being just 0.08 seconds away from an ‘A’ final berth. She ended up falling to 14th in the ‘B’ final, but if she can just swim a tiny bit faster this season and get into the top eight in the morning, her point total could be doubled. Cuomo is also a 48.44 100 freestyler, a time far from NCAA scoring but will still contribute to Virginia sprinting team.
In addition to their veteran sprint stalwarts, Virginia also adds a group of newcomers in the discipline. The biggest one is Georgia transfer Maxine Parker, who set best times of 21.93 and 47.75 back in 2021, which both would have scored points at 2022 NCAAs. Historically, she’s had trouble hitting season-bests at NCAAs, but that all can change as the Virginia women usually do a great job dropping time from conferences to NCAAs.
In the 200 free, Alex Walsh leads the team with a 1:42.28, a time she swam to win at ACCs. She swam the event at NCAAs in 2021, but didn’t do so last season and probably won’t this year due to her dominance in the 400 IM. Without Walsh, the 200 free is actually one of Virginia’s weaker events, as they didn’t have any NCAA ‘A’ finalists. That could change this year, as sophomore Reilly Tiltmann was ninth in 1:43.55 and has been as fast as 1:43.17. With three out of the eight NCAA ‘A’ finalists from last season having graduated, she can probably make the championship heat this season.
Just like the 50 and the 100, newcomers will also boost the 200 free. Parker didn’t swim the 200 free individually at the 2022 NCAAs, but her time of 1:44.24 leading off Georgia’s 800 free relay would have made the ‘B’ final. Freshman Claire Tuggle‘s best time of 1:44.96 is 0.03 seconds off what it took to score last year, but it was set back in 2018. She had been struggling to hit best times in the 200 free for years, but the fact that she just was 0.01 of a second off her yards best and 0.13 seconds off her meters best last season bodes well for college. South African swimmer Aimee Canny has never competed in yards before, but comes in with respectable long course best times of 25.29/54.76/1:58.41. Those times convert to 22.08/47.99/1:43.79 in yards, which all would have been fast enough to ‘B’ final at 2022 NCAAs.
Although she’s better at the longer distances, senior Maddie Donohoe clocked a 1:45.95 to finish 27th at NCAAs and can contribute in the event on a conference level.
Overall, Virginia’s sprint group is extremely deep and only gets better with new additions, and they should have no trouble racking up major points in the discipline.
DISTANCE FREE: ★★★
Losing Emma Weyant, the 2022 NCAA runner-up in the 500 free and the top-ranked returning swimmer in the event, cuts Virginia’s distance free point total in half. Without her, Maddie Donohoe is the team’s best distance swimmer. She had a big breakout season last year, going from 4:42.68 to 4:39.61 in the 500 free and 16:01.60 to 15:55.14 in the 1650 free (her first PB in the event since 2017). In the 500, she was 14th at NCAAs after finishing 11th in prelims, and in the 1650 she was sixth.
Donohoe is likely to be the team’s top scorer in the distance events and is the best Virginia miler by far, but senior Ella Nelson actually has a faster 500 free than her. Nelson clocked a 4:39.03 in the 500 free at the 2021 Tennessee Invite, which would have 14th at NCAAs, but given her strength in other events she likely won’t swim the 500 at championship meets.
Virginia has two incoming freshmen who specialize in distance events. Claire Tuggle has been as fast as 4:41.36 in the 500 free, which is a few tenths off NCAA scoring range, but that time was set in 2018 and her 2021-22 season best stands at 4:46.46. Sophia Knapp comes in with best times of 4:47.70/16:35.08, which won’t quite qualify for NCAAs just yet but shows potential.
Even with Weyant, distance free was the discipline that scored the least amount of NCAA points for Virginia. This year, with Donohoe being the only “lock” for points and Tuggle’s improvement trajectory uncertain, the 500/1650 free events will stick out as a weakness in comparison to the team’s other extremely deep event disciplines.
Virginia has a great 100 back 1-2 punch in Gretchen Walsh and Reilly Tiltmann, who took second and fifth respectively at 2022 NCAAs last year. Walsh was out-touched by Katharine Berkoff, who became the first woman under 49 seconds in that race, by 0.26 seconds, but her time of 49.00 was under the previous US Open/American record and was the second-fastest in history. Berkoff had gotten the best of Walsh multiple times last year, but it’s been close every single time, so this year things could turn in Walsh’s favor.
Tiltmann clocked 50.67 at NCAAs, but her best time of 50.42 is from 2022 ACCs. The fact that a 50-point 100 backstroker isn’t the fastest on a team is just a testament to how good Virginia is. But where Tiltmann is the fastest is in the 200 back, an event in which she finished fifth at NCAAs and won the ACC title. She saw huge improvement in this race, dropping her best time from 1:50.66 to 1:49.63.
Carly Noveline is an incredibly versatile addition for Virginia, and her best events are the backstroke ones. She holds personal bests of 51.61/1:53.17, with both of her times being fast enough to make the ‘B’ final at NCAAs. Also watch for freshman Izzy Bradley, who goes 53.45/1:58.97 and is just under a second away from NCAA qualification in the 100 back.
Sophomore Ella Bathurst finished 17th at NCAAs with a 1:53.42 and only needed to be 0.11 seconds faster to earn a berth in the ‘B’ final, so she could also give the team some 200 back points. Finally, don’t forget about junior Sophia Wilson, who clocked a 1:55.55 at ACCs but went on to add two seconds at NCAAs, placing 50th with a 1:57.19. However, she dropped nearly three seconds in the span of a year (1:58.00 was her 2020-21 season best).
Virginia has an extremely strong backstroke group that should contend for major points on both the conference and NCAA level. The only thing keeping them from five stars in this discipline is the lack of a second NCAA ‘A’ finalist or high consolation finalist alongside Tiltmann in the 200 back, but you can’t have everything, right?
Alexis Wenger, the 2022 NCAA runner-up and the fourth-fastest performer in the history of the 100 breast, was the face of Virginia sprint breaststroke for the last four years. Without her, Virginia is going to take a huge hit points-wise in the 100 breast, but with a lieu of swimmers in the 58 to 59-point range, they still have plenty of depth in the event.
The fastest returning 100 breaststroker at UVA (not named Alex Walsh or Kate Douglass) is junior Anna Keating, who hit a best time of 58.81 back in the winter of 2021 and clocked a 2021-22 season best of 59.05 to finish 13th at NCAAs last year. However, considering that it took a 58.19 to ‘A’ final at NCAAs, Keating will have to make a big drop this year if she wants to make up for the points lost by Wenger’s absence.
Newcomers Emma Weber and Jaycee Yegher will also bring Virginia additional 100 breast strength. Weber holds a PB of 59.03, which is actually faster than what Keating went last season and also would have scored at NCAAs. Yegher, a transfer from Harvard who didn’t compete last season due to shoulder surgery, has been as quick as 59.39—a tenth of what it took to place 16th in the 2022 NCAA prelims. She hasn’t raced collegiately since 2020, so it will be interesting to see how she can get back into the swing of things.
Where Virginia really shines is the 200 breast, where they had three NCAA ‘A’ finalists and one ‘B’ finalist last year. They’ll miss Wenger and her 11th place finish from the 2022 NCAAs, but they return defending NCAA Champion Kate Douglass, fourth-place finisher Ella Nelson, and eighth-place finisher Keating.
Douglass is the fastest swimmer in the history of the 200 breast, and her 2:02.19 NCAA record time makes her the heavy favorite to repeat for the title. Nelson clocked 2:05.51 at NCAAs last year, but has been as fast as 2:04.35 before, a time she set back in 2021 . Keating went 2:07.10 in the NCAA final but set a best time of 2:06.89 in prelims. But the crazy thing about Virginia’s 200 breast depth is that Alex Walsh, who is the defending ACC champion and the third-fastest performer in history, likely won’t even swim the event at NCAAs after winning the 200 fly last year. Diversifying the Walsh sisters and Douglass across the 200 fly, 100 free and 200 breast, the Cavs optimize their point potential on the final day of the meet.
It doesn’t stop at the top though, as Yegher’s 2:08.47 from 2020 brings Virginia yet another sub-2:10 200 breaststroker. That time is not off the 2:08.14 it took to ‘B’ final at NCAAs last year, which means she could make up for some 200 breast points following Wenger’s loss. Weber has also been sub-2:10, holding a best time of 2:09.04.
Be on the lookout for freshman Zoe Skirboll as well, who comes in with personal bests of 1:00.19 and 2:11.12 and is on the brink of NCAA qualification.
Even though Virginia will take a big hit in the 100 breast due to Wenger leaving, their three returning ‘A’ finalists in the 200 breast could bring back over 40 points just from one event (and this doesn’t even include Walsh, who is one of the fastest in history in the event likely won’t swim it at NCAAs) and are responsible for the team’s five-star breaststroke rating.
Maggie MacNeil still exists, but Kate Douglass is no doubt a top contender for the NCAA title in the 100 fly. She holds the American record with a time of 49.04 and is the reigning National champion, and will come into this season with the hot hand. Also scoring at NCAAs last year were Jessica Nava and Lexi Cuomo, who finished 14th and 15th with times of 51.88 and 51.97 respectively. Nava has graduated but Cuomo returns, so Virginia sprint fly is still in good shape. Like in the 50 free, Cuomo nearly missed the ‘A’ final at NCAAs by placing ninth in prelims, so if she just swims a little bit faster the team could have two 100 fly ‘A’ finalists.
The Cavaliers also add UCLA transfer Sam Baron. She failed to qualify for NCAAs last year, but holds best times of 51.66 and 1:55.66 from the 2020-21 season. Her 100 fly time would have made the ‘B’ final, so if she regains her form from two years ago in a new environment she could also be a scorer. The versatile Carly Noveline has been as fast as 52.58 before, although she’d probably be put to better use in the sprint free and backstroke events.
While Douglass leads the team in the 100 fly, Alex Walsh tops the depth chart in the 200 fly. She won the NCAA title last year in a time of 1:50.79, and with her main rivals Olivia Carter and Regan Smith being out of collegiate swimming, her chances of repeating are multiplied this year. Then there’s junior Abby Harter, who set a personal best last season and finished 11th at NCAAs in a time of 1:53.38. Additionally, she’s been as fast as 51.73 in the 100 fly, an NCAA scoring time, but she set that back in 2020 and finished 26th at NCAAs in 52.17 this year. Nava was also the 200 fly ACC champion in 2021 and holds a best time of 1:54.36, so her loss will diminish the teams’ depth in the event a bit but not by a lot considering that all of their other strong 200 flyers return.
Overall, Virginia’s fly group is extremely strong on the top end, as they return the NCAA champions in both the 100 fly and 200 fly. They also have a lieu of other scorers that are all capable of earning double-digit points next season such as Cuomo and Harter, which cements their five-star rating in this category.
Virginia’s 88 IM points from last year’s NCAAs should be enough to justify why we’ve given the discipline five stars here.
Alex Walsh has established herself as the 200 IM’s dominant force in both long course and short course, as she first broke the NCAA/US Open/American record in the event at NCAAs with a time of 1:50.08, and then went onto win World Championships gold by 1.44 seconds. Unless something totally out-of-the-ordinary happens this season, it’s safe to say that she’s going to repeat as NCAA champion.
The same can be said about the 400 IM, where Walsh won the NCAA title in a time of 3:57.25 to become the fourth-fastest performer in history. With NCAA runner-up Brooke Forde being gone and no other returning swimmer having been under four minutes in the event, Walsh’s path to a second-consecutive NCAA championship here is clearer than a crystal ball.
The craziest thing about Virginia’s IM group is that Kate Douglass, the defending Olympic bronze medalist and third-fastest yards performer in the history of the event, is likely not even going to swim the 200 IM because it conflicts with the 50 free.
But it’s not just Walsh and Douglass that are crazy-good in the IMs as Ella Nelson is the reigning 400 IM ACC champion and ‘A’-finaled in both IMs at NCAAs. She finished eighth in the 200 IM with a time of 1:55.01 (setting a PB of 1:54.48 in the prelims) and third in the 400 IM with a time of 4:02.45 (she won ACCs in 4:02.11), and will come into this season as one of the top IMers across both distances.
Abby Harter is yet another IM scorer, who improved from 1:56.22 to 1:55.08 in the 200 IM last season and finished 11th at NCAAs. Also approaching IM scoring range are Ella Bathurst and Sophia Wilson, in the 200 IM and 400 IM respectively. Bathurst has been as fast as 1:56.86 in the 200 IM and is less than a second off of ‘B’ final range, whereas Wilson dropped three seconds in her 400 IM last year, which culminated in clocking a 4:11.10 at NCAAs for a 27th-place finish.
The 200 IM could also be a good third event for Sam Baron, who set a best time of 1:58.21 at 2022 Pac-12s—the only event in which she managed to hit a lifetime best in at a championship meet last season.
Largely because they lost Emma Weyant, last year’s NCAA third-place finisher in the 400 IM, Virginia likely won’t be scoring 88 points in the IM events this year. However, the return of two ‘A’ finalists (plus the heavy favorite to sweep the IMs at 2023 NCAAs) and several other strong pieces should be enough to retain the team’s status as the top IM group in the nation.
Diving was the only discipline where Virginia didn’t score any NCAA points last year. That being said, under new coach Josh Arndt, diving could experience a rebuild.
The team returns three NCAA qualifiers: seniors Charlotte Bowen and Jennifer Bell, as well as sophomore Elizabeth Kaye. They earned 46th, 40th, and 44th-place finishes in the 3-meter diving event respectively, with that event being the highest-placing event for all three divers. On the ACC level, they had more of an impact, as all three of them (along with junior Madeline Grosz) scored points and Kaye made the ‘A’ final in the 3-meter.
Notre Dame transfer Annie Wiese is a new addition to the diving squad. She has finished as high as fourth at ACCs back in 2021, and qualified for NCAAs in 2019, where she finished 27th in the three-meter.
Virginia won four out of the five contested relays at NCAAs last season, and broke US Open/American/NCAA records in all of them. They are the most dominant relay force since the 2017-18 Stanford women that swept the relays at NCAAs, and even with a few losses here and there, that status likely won’t change coming into this season.
Let’s start off by saying that their 200 and 400 free relays are in great shape and are probably the favorites to win NCAAs again, with all four of their legs from both relays returning. They’ll be challenged by Stanford, which gets boosted by the addition of Claire Curzan, but even she wouldn’t be able to make up for the two-second advantage that Virginia had over them last season.
However, in the 800 free relay as well as both medley relays, there’s going to be an influx of lineup changes being made.
With Virginia’s incoming class being very 200 free-heavy, Aimee Canny, Maxine Parker, or Claire Tuggle could see themselves getting on the 800 free relay, as all of them are probably capable of going faster than Emma Weyant‘s 1:44.80 split. Reilly Tiltmann‘s and her 1:43.17 leadoff should make her a lock for this relay, and Ella Nelson is also capable of splitting 1:43. Regardless of the four people that Todd DeSorbo ends up going with, a bunch of 1:43s and a 1:41-point from Alex Walsh probably makes this team a safe bet for second behind Stanford (who is miles ahead of everyone else in terms of 200 free depth).
Figuring out the medley relay lineups is going to be a little trickier for Virginia, as losing breaststroke specialist Alexis Wenger puts their teams in a disarray. The 400 medley relay will likely be as dominant as it was last year, as they could put in Tiltmann on back, Gretchen Walsh on free, and some combination of Kate Douglass and A. Walsh on fly/breast. Both Walsh and Douglass have been 58-point in 100 breast, so there’s no doubt that they can split 57 or faster when fully tapered at a championship meet.
The 200 medley relay is where there are some uncertainties because this is the relay that A. Walsh won’t be on if she opts to swim the four other relays. Why is this an issue? Because she’s the fastest 50 breaststroker on the team, having clocked a 26.97 at the UVA sprint Olympics and can probably be faster with a relay start. Without her, the next-best option is probably Douglass, who went 27.33 in the same competition and seems more geared towards the longer breaststroke distances. The same can be said for Tiltmann, who clocked a 24.04 50 back at the Sprint Olympics. A Tiltmann-Douglass-Cuomo-G. Walsh lineup for this relay is still competitive, but they will be vulnerable to the likes of Stanford, Alabama, Ohio State, and NC State at NCAAs.
That being said, it’s a little bit unrealistic to be judging swimmers’ stroke 50 capabilities by the results of an intrasquad meet, so we could totally be proven wrong here. In addition, with Virginia’s depth and their vast amount of versatile swimmers, they probably have several alternative medley relay lineups that we didn’t mention. Plus, winning three relays instead of four relays doesn’t hurt the team’s dominance that much, considering that they will score high in all five.
Total Stars: 33/40
First off, it’s important to contextualize Virginia’s dominance in the form of stars. The average of the other top twelve teams is 21 stars, and Stanford and Texas, the schools with the next-highest star totals, have 28 each. Then there’s the Cavaliers, who have a whooping 33 total stars, being the only team in the NCAA to earn more than 30 stars. In addition, considering how rare five-star categories are, the fact that four of the team’s event disciplines are rated with five stars just goes to show how deep they are.
That being said, although we predict Virginia to three-peat as NCAA champions this season, we do believe that they won’t score as many points as they did last season—which was a near-perfect season by all standards. Although the team’s incoming class of freshmen and transfers is strong, none of them are potential ‘A’ finalists in multiple events and/or critical pieces to relays the way that Emma Weyant and Alexis Wenger were. In addition, Stanford and Texas bring in very fast newcomers (Claire Curzan, Charlotte Hook, Dakota Luther, and Lydia Jacoby to name a few) that will be competing to close the points gap with the Cavaliers.
However, returning Kate Douglass, Alex Walsh, and Gretchen Walsh, the top three individual NCAA scorers from last season, as well as most of their other individual scorers, should be good enough for Virginia to claim the #1 team title by a significant amount once more. Despite their losses, there is still not another NCAA team that can match both the top-end strength and the depth that the Cavaliers have.
WOMEN’S PREVIEW INDEX
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance Free||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
|#1 Virginia Cavaliers||★★★★★||★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★★||★||★★★★★||33/40|
|#2 Texas Longhorns||★★||★★★★||★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||★★||★★★★★||★★★||28/40|
|#3 Stanford Cardinal||★★★★||★★★||★★★★★||★★||★★★★★||★★★||★||★★★★★||28/40|
|#4 Alabama Crimson Tide||★★★★★||★★★||★★★★||★★★||★★||★||★||★★★★||23/40|
|#5 NC State Wolfpack||★★★★||★||★★★★||★★★||★★★||★★||★||★★★★||22/40|
|#6 Louisville Cardinals||★★★||★★★||★★||★||★★★★||★★★||★★||★★★★||22/40|
|#7 Michigan Wolverines||★★★||★★||★||★★||★||★★||★||★★★||15/40|
|#8 California Golden Bears||★||★||★★★||★||★★★||★★★||★||★★★||16/40|
|#9 Ohio State Buckeyes||★★★||★★★||★★||★★★||★★||★★||★★★||★★★★||22/40|
|#10 Tennessee Volunteers||★★★||★★★★||★★★||★★★||★★★||★★★★||★||★★★||24/40|
|#11 Indiana Hoosiers||★★||★★||★||★★★||★||★★||★★★★||★||16/40|
|#12 Kentucky Wildcats||★||★||★★||★★★||★★||★★★||★★||★★||16/40|